It is hard now to understand how much the world changed in their lifetimes. They were born before houses were electrified, when gas light had not fully displaced whale oil; before broadcast radio; before indoor toilets. They were adults when the silent film era ended, when photojournalism displaced engraved illustrations in magazines and newspapers. All but one of them were old enough to remember the Women's Suffrage movement. Hans Hoffmann, the oldest, was born in 1880; Elaine de Kooning, the youngest, was born in 1918. Willem deKooning, Isamu Noguchi, and Arshile Gorky were born in 1904; James Brooks and David Smith in 1906; Jackson Pollock in 1912; and Franz Kline in 1910.
Abstract Expressionism was a late flowering of Modernism. The Depression and WWII had put much of life on hold, but by the 1950's, it was showing its age, with its concerns differing only incrementally from the avant garde styles of the turn of the century. In post war boom it had become the new academic style almost before the paint had dried, and by the time Fluxus and Pop Art came along, it was Grandma and Grandpa art---something art professors do, something you see in museums.
The Abstract Expressionists and the new artists might as well have been from different planets. As radical as they had once seemed, it was still in an important way, the same old thing: hand-painted canvas rectangles, surrounded with a gilt wooden frame, intended for display on the walls of an educated and rich elite.
The new generation had known television since their youth, and had grown up with radio and recorded music, movies with sound and color, and modern advertising. Their world was the world of cars and highways, manufactured products and manufactured imagery. Fluxus and Pop Art truly broke with the old world in a way that Modernism and Abstract Expressionism never had, engaging the phenomena of mass culture. Pop artists were little constrained by traditional categories, and Fluxus artists often dispensed with traditional media entirely.
Pop, though it still produced paintings and three dimensional objects, did so in a manner that largely obviated the use of the painter's and sculptor's traditional skills in favor of the graphical tools of commercial art. More fundamentally, unlike Abstract Expressionism, it did not implicitly address an aesthetic elite, but was extravagantly demotic, taking its subjects and its style from the artifacts and images of mass culture, and for its audience, the public.
Pop lives on even today, but its glory days were few compared to Modernism and it was already past its use-by date only a decade later, in 1968, when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed, and the Vietnam War was at its height. Originally about mass culture, it had almost instantly been itself turned into mass culture, and it moved more or less directly from the studio to the museums and history books.
The younger generation that followed on the heels of Pop at the end of the 1960's had never known a world without ubiquitous photographic images and had never lived in a time when the dominant school of painting involved any kind of realism or a high degree of manual skill.
Against the background of an ever-increasing glut of commercial mass media, a group of young painters began painting photographs, i.e., not just using photographs as a reference to aid in painting something else, but carefully painting the photograph itself, almost as artists of other generations had painted bowls of fruit. They used a variety of optical and mechanical aids, and often went to extravagant lengths to flawlessly simulate the appearance of a photograph using hand--applied paint.
The movement was named Photorealism by the gallerist Louis K. Meisel, who restricted the meaning to artists: Who use cameras and photographs to gather information. Use mechanical or semi-mechanical means to transfer the picture to the canvas. Produce paintings that look like photographs.
The original generation in the U.S. included John Baeder, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Chuck Close, Charles Bell, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, Robert Bechtle, and Tom Blackwell. These artists had diverse goals and origins: John Bader left a career in advertising to pursue painting; Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Chuck Close, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, and Robert Bechtle had academic training, some at theory-heavy schools such as Yale, but others regional schools; Charles Bell had no training at all; and Tom Blackwell jumped from an established career as an Abstract Expressionist, first to Pop Art, thence to Photorealism.
Stylistically, some, for instance Chuck Close, took (and takes) extraordinary pains to copy photographs with perfect precision, making paintings that are almost as much about the process of making the painting as about the images, which were mundane in the extreme, close-up snapshots of people who are not remarkable for their beauty. Photographs of his most precise works, notably Big Self Portrait, 1968, are all but indistinguishable from the original photograph, although close inspection of the paintings themselves reveals their nature.
Chuck Close paints faces, but one quality that is fairly consistent among the others is the absolute lack of emphasis on people, who, when they appear at all, receive no more or less emphasis that the objects and surfaces around them. The artists try to preserve the lens's neutrality to the nature of the what is before it. Close's concentration on faces is an exception that proves the rule---because interestingly, the artist suffers from a significant degree of prosopagnosia, the neurological inability to distinguish faces. In other words, for Close, there is already relatively little that is special about the face that makes it radically different from painting other conventional subjects of Photo-Realism.
Estes, Baeder, Goings, and Blackwell favor shiny surfaces, chrome and glass, and scenes largely empty of people. For Baeder it is often diners, trailers and food trucks frozen in a moment without people. For Blackwell, the subject is often Harley Davidson motorcycles, airplanes, and race cars, or street scenes favoring reflective windows and metal. Goings paints cars, and buildings, ordinary scenes filled with the ordinary artifacts of life, but rarely with life itself.
Richard Estes, strove to produce pictures which are perfectly convincing simulacra of photographs, but are actually a merging of multiple images, i.e., they look like photographs, but often they are not perfect copies of any one photograph. His scenes are store fronts, streets without people, diners, and building fronts of glass and shiny metal. When people are present, they are rarely central, but are usually in the distance, with their backs turned, or caught passing by.
Charles Bell's paintings are primarily of toys, pinball machines, dolls and action figures. His subjects are composed, and though they look like photographs, they do not give the appearance of snapshots.
Don Eddy’s paintings are like Bell’s in that they seem to not snapshots, but deliberately composed. However, instead of tabletop scale subjects, they are usually bland compositions made with the camera, not by arranging the subjects by hand. Images of cars, storefronts, glassware, and also buildings, street scenes, and landscapes. The paintings are occasionally include people, but usually incidentally---in the background, from behind, etc.
Audrey Flack, educated at Cooper Union and Yale, and a student of Josef Albers---a combination that might be expected to produce the most orthodox of viewpoints---is notable for her disinclination to hew to any particular theoretical position, migrating from abstraction, to New Realism, to Photorealism of a particularly gorgeous and lush variety, much warmer than either the street scenes emptied of people, or the depopulated chrome and glass vistas that are often the chosen subject. In recent years Flack has switched to sculpture, and has produced an extraordinary body of full-sized polychromed figure sculpture that has the rare distinction of so far, of defining a category of its own. More on Flack's sculpture below.
The original Photorealists, as well as a host of artists who came along later, both in the United States, and in Europe and elsewhere, continue to be known for convenience as Photorealists, but the representing a diverse grab bag of motivations and aesthetic impulses. For this reason, Photorealism is best thought of not exactly a style or a school, but an umbrella term that covers a large range of artists who paint (or painted) in such a way as to blur the line between photography and painting.
Some of the early Photorealists, in particular Chuck Close, would paint one isolated patch of canvas at a time so as to completely denature the process of painting, and remove any impulse by the artist to either consciously or unconsciously fudge the copying process. The procedure turns out to be quite similar to pixilation in computer graphics, which was unfamiliar to non-specialists when Photorealism began, but is now commonplace. Close's original process lent itself naturally to representing pixilated images in various ways, and the realism of the paintings, as with pixilated images, now depends upon distance. The logical limit of the denaturing process would be to eliminate the hand entirely, and relegate the pixel rendering to a mechanical device, closing the loop.
Some well known artists, notably Janet Fish, whose work appears superficially similar to that of Photorealist painters, emphatically reject the classification. Although Fish favors groupings of shiny reflective objects, such as glassware and plastic, for subject matter, and paints them in a highly realistic style, she sees herself as a realist painter, not a Photorealist.
Fish's argument is not a quibble about names: her aesthetic orientation is towards painting, not photography, and her paintings are not made by the kind of rigorous copying that is common among Photorealists, and her resemblance to that school is superficial. She paints carefully composed arrangements that are not in fact rendered in an optically consistent way, but are truly painted. A thought experiment shows the difference: take an Estes, and imagine taking the photograph it was made from. Easy. Now imagine taking the photograph a fish painting was made from. It would be almost impossible, and this tells you that they are true paintings.
The paintings are extremely rich in color, with complex interplay of shadow, reflection, and transparency, and a compositional sense that is more like that of an action painter, complex arrangements with a uniform tension across the canvas. The cool stillness characteristic of much Photorealism is not a feature of her compositions---the result is more like what Jackson Pollock might have done had he been a meticulous guy with a tiny little brush.
Another clue to her non-Photo-Realist nature is that although Fish usually paints still lives, when people are present, they are not treated with the ruthless indifference usually found in Photorealism.
The so called "Verist" sculptors of the same period attempted to do Photorealism in three dimensions. The name Verist is itself a misnomer, because true verism does not describe a high degree of realism per se, but the representation of flaws such as wrinkles and blemishes. The Roman "warts and all" style is verist. A sculpture can be unrealistic and still verist (for example, a caricature that include wrinkles and pimples) or it can be extremely realistic, but not verist---Classical Greek work often has this property.
Quibbles about the name aside, there is a deeper problem with comparing Verist sculpture to Photorealism. Photorealism by definition is an attempt to paint a representation of a photograph, or in some cases, to paint as if one were a human camera, unforgivingly showing the optical truth unfiltered by the mind. But in sculpture, there can be no analogous photograph-like a-priori representation of the figure---there is only reality itself. Photorealism is ultimately about photographs, not reality.
Duane Hanson and John De Andrea were the most important of a number of sculptors who nevertheless created sculptures that are similar to Photorealism in that, even though there is no 3-D photograph to sculpt a representation of, they still attempt to produce a simulacrum of the original that is unfiltered by the mind of the artist.
The artists make full size epoxy or polyester casting from molds taken of living models. The figures are finished and painted, hair is implanted, an in Hansons case, they are dressed and equipped with appropriate accessories.
Duane Hanson's figures tend to be people of almost stereotyped ordinariness, fully clothed. De Andrea's subjects are almost all nude, mostly women whose appearance ranges from young and attractive to young and highly attractive, although occasionally attractive young men appear as well. De Andrea's nudes are verist by courtesy only, but the work of both sculptors is intended to be as far as possible, a convincing simulacrum of a living human figure.
Audrey Flack's sculpture can be contrasted with the work of Hanson and De Andrea in several ways. First, the work of De Andrea and Hanson is frankly cast from life, and not only makes no pretense to be otherwise, but attempts as far as possible to preserve the purity of the illusion that it is a perfect copy of life.
Flack's sculptures, although vividly naturalistic, may be adorned with fantastic attributes, such as the snakes on Medusa, or the encorche Sophia, with her bones and muscles exposed.
De Andrea's work is both sexy and sexualized, kept just this side of centerfold art by the addition of references to customary poses from nudes of other eras, and vague references to contemporary politics. An example is American Icon, a group of nude figures in the positions of the figures in the famous John Filo photograph of the fourteen year old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of a student shot dead in the Kent State Massacre of 1970.
Many of Audrey Flack's sculptures are nudes, but whether nude or not, they are of beautiful women. Though Flack was a Photorealists, her sculpture has little in common with that of her peers. They are beautiful and naked, but with nothing of the centerfold quality of a De Andrea, and certainly none of the exaggerated ordinariness of the Hansons. There is nothing verist about them---they have the quality of divine perfection found in Classicism, but without the canonical formality. They are strange, almost non-denominational pagan idols, sculptures of arresting beauty of beautiful women. Although the subjects are sometimes familiar, for instance, Medusa, they are an amalgam of many periods, and of no period, it all looks authentically pagan, upon close examination, one is at a loss as to just what pagan religion it might be.
There is a family resemblance to the pagan goddesses of British New Sculpture, particularly of Edward Onslow Ford, but with a flamboyant polychrome treatment that goes beyond anything found in that era, although it may bear a small debt to some of the High Victorian Gothic polychromed sculpture, or to the work of Gilbert Bayes.